Review: Silence (2016)

Director Martin Scorsese shows his love of Shūsaku Endō's classic novel and how meaningful this passion project is to him.

There’s a moment in Silence, Martin Scorsese’s powerful film about persecution of Christians in 17th century, where the main character, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), whispers, “Am I just praying to silence?” Scorsese’s answer to that question, at the heart of this epic film, may surprise many, especially those that see him as a director who celebrates excess. And it’s an answer that will challenge moviegoers, the faithful and non-believers alike.

The film begins as two excitable Jesuit priests, Rodrigues and Garupe (Adam Driver), convince their superior (Ciaran Hinds) to allow them to continue their mission to Japan to find their former teacher, Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has been rumored to have become an apostate. When the two arrive in Japan, they quickly realize the dangers they’ve been warned about are very real, as the pair secretly minister to Japanese Christians in hiding that are desperate to be spiritually fed.


The perils, and the tension in the movie, increase all the more once Rodrigues and Garupe witness and suffer persecution themselves at the hand of the “Insquisitor” (Issey Ogata), whose methods are diabolical and whose grand approach is ingenious. It’s that plan that causes Rodrigues to question the goodness of God and even his existence, as a battle of wills ensues in the middle and last acts of the film, with common and kind Japanese Christians in between as the victims.

Explaining Silence as an historical epic denies the film and its source material of its complexity. The groups represented in the movie are many, and their viewpoints just as expansive. Each makes good common sense in how they view the world, and at the same time, each does not. The complications are furthered, however, as every significant character is complex him and herself, not easily explained, and motivated and moved as any human is—by a great many things, and apt to change.

In this way, and indeed throughout the film, Scorsese shows his love of Shūsaku Endō’s classic novel and how meaningful this passion project is to him. It walks a line that some may find blasphemous, and many more will find theologically unsound, but the movie also emphasizes the existence of God, an answer regarding his silence (answered more strongly than Endō did), and embraces the very heart of a gracious God in a film that for two plus hours wonders where his grace has gone.

If the movie sounds like a heavy one theologically, it is. Silence is difficult to watch, not only because it forces us all to ask very heavy questions that aren’t easily answered with cliches or whatever else we’ve relied on all our lives, but also because the movie does so by presenting a world too harsh for us to think about, and people too kind to suffer the way they do. 

The heaviness of the material, the way it challenges us to consider the biggest questions in life, is a challenging one to bring to screen. Though the film is lengthy, the questions and repercussions of choices on-screen, and then translated to our lives, require more time and more thought than can be given. A second or third viewing is required (the film is beautifully shot and worthy of repeated viewings), or even better, a slower reading through Endō’s book. Reading a chapter at a time allows the disturbing aspects of the story to sink in and causes us to think analytically; here, there’s too much that happens in two and a half hours, perhaps, for us to come to any real conclusions, rather than simply accept or reject Scorcese’s answer.

And that answer, though it needs to be explored in its subtleties, is so very significant. And though Scorsese brings his own thoughts and modern application to it, I believe the answer is much the same as the one Endō wanted to tell us. In the silence, there is an answer. God is not silent; he is misunderstood, misheard, misinterpreted, but ultimately, he is not silent to our cries, to our suffering, to our pain. He is roaring in love and devotion to a people too clumsy, prideful, and ignorant, at times, to hear him. That message means everything—it does now as it did then to murdered farmers, apostatizing priests, and persecuting officials. The question, though, turns to us—how do we respond to the silence and to what it means? Scorcese’s film charges us to answer, and with all the pitch-perfect pieces in “Silence,” it’s that which makes it a great movie, and one of utmost importance.

Rating: A


Editor’s Note: We’re delighted that TWWK/Charles contributed this review. But don’t get too excited; our founder’s not back for good. This is only a guest contribution. Want more? I suggest you find Charles’s writing on Geekdom House or catch up with him on Tumblr and Twitter

14 Comments on this post.

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  • medievalotaku
    17 January 2017 at 10:05 am

    I’ll have to watch this film. I had been going back and forth about watching this movie because of some concerns voiced by my father. The review of John Mulderig of the Catholic News Service captures the main concern quite well: “Those lacking such a foundation could be led astray, drawing the conclusion that mercy toward the suffering of others can sometimes justify sin.” And, the case in question even appears to have Our Lord advocating such a view–or is it an illusion created in the suffering and confused mind of the missionary priest?

    But, I thoroughly enjoyed Endo Shusaku’s The Samurai, and I have no doubt that Silence is a powerfully moving story. I’ll watch the film before reading the book, because I’m the kind of viewer who likes to quibble about things movie makers change. 🙂

    Thank you for your excellent review, Charles!

    Leave a Reply
    • TWWK
      17 January 2017 at 10:43 am

      “Those lacking such a foundation could be led astray, drawing the conclusion that mercy toward the suffering of others can sometimes justify sin.” << A very valid concern, and a reason why I would worry that Christians who may be weak in their faith should only see the film when guided by someone strong in their faith, who can discuss these ideas. Also, I think it should be noted that Scorcese doesn't give any easy answers, and even that conclusion isn't a hard one.

      And, the case in question even appears to have Our Lord advocating such a view–or is it an illusion created in the suffering and confused mind of the missionary priest? << That's the question in both the film and novel, and we're left to interpret it as we see fit, considering that the person seeing/hearing this vision has become somewhat unreliable by this point.

      I look forward to hearing your views should you watch it!

      Leave a Reply
  • simoku
    19 January 2017 at 4:16 pm

    Charles! I’m so happy that you posted here again — even if it’s only as a guest contribution! I’m very new to blogging and I found your work as a Christian anime blogger to be hugely helpful and inspirational. I was sad to discover that both you and Mike from anime diet have moved on from blogging and I felt like I missed an era. So this is quite a nice surprise! Thanks for the review!

    Leave a Reply
    • TWWK
      19 January 2017 at 4:51 pm

      Thank you for the kind words! I feel like an old-timer now, though I started BtT just 6-7 years ago. Mike was already a very well-regarded blogger when I started and a great encouragement to me.

      I hope you’ll continue to follow along with the bloggers here, who continue to do a wonderful job. And if you’re interested, I do still write about anime over at geekdomhouse.com, along with another BtT writer, Casey.

      Leave a Reply
      • simoku
        19 January 2017 at 5:04 pm

        Thank you for replying AND following my blog! I may have screamed when I saw the notifications. For some reason, I wasn’t aware that you were still writing! You can expect me to pop in here and there from now on 🙂

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  • Samuru
    19 January 2017 at 9:33 pm

    Awesome review here Charles. Good to see (er, read) your handiwork once again. I look forward to watching this movie and I do hope to glean a different perspective from it. God has had on my mind lately how different Christians can be in other parts of the world. I am well aware of it, from my experiences over the years as a believer, but it’s fascinating how people who have read the same bible, worship the same God, and follow the same Kingdom values go through a different spiritual experience.

    I hope when I see Silence, I am able to see what it’s like to be truly persecuted for our faith and be grateful to God that I do not go through that. On top of that, to be able to be a blessing to those that are currently being martyred even if that means just sending money to help them.

    God bless, and keep doing what He has called you to do.

    Leave a Reply
    • TWWK
      20 January 2017 at 12:10 am

      I’ll definitely look forward to hearing your thoughts on the film once you watch it. I think you’ll enjoy some aspects of it, but not others (especially considering that Scorsese shares little common theology with you) – it’ll be a challenging watch in a variety of ways.

      Leave a Reply
      • Samuru
        23 January 2017 at 6:15 pm

        Cool. Yes, I doubt I will agree with all the theology in it, but that’s ok. I understand it’s a movie and fiction. The one movie that I was just like “nah bruh” was Noah. That…..made no sense.

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  • Gaheret
    20 January 2017 at 10:41 am

    I just saw the film two days ago, and I´ve been thinking about it since. I´m a Catholic student, and I had previously read about Japanese martyrs, but not about the European apostates in Japan. I still have to read Endo´s novel.

    Well… I liked some elements of the film and dislike some others. Firstly, I have a great respect for what Flannery O´Connor would call “Christian tales about the land of the Enemy” (O´Connor, Eliot, Bernanos, Joseph Roth, Dinesen´s “Angelic Avengers”, Dostoyevski!), however grotesque or unnerving some of my fellows find them. I´d even wish to write one of them someday. Silence reminded me of some works of Graham Greene (strongly), Evelyn Waugh and Gerturd Von Le Fort, with this challenging, not-easy-answers approach to the struggles of Faith. And certainly, God´s apparent silence (the one of the Book of Job) is a central question both in the Bible and spiritual life.

    That said, I found the portrait of the Japanese Christians in persecution deeply moving and realistic, and also very illuminating. I enjoyed also the portrait of the prosecutors, which was accurate and significative, with their realpolitik arguments and their truly diabolical methods. Father Garupe, Ichizo, Mokichi and Kichijiro were all, in my view, great Christian characters whose redemptive power equated my favorite anime (Now and then, here and there). Spoiler Warning from here: I was deeply moved by the beautiful landscapes with almost no music, the excelent characters, the Confession scene, the tortures, the fear, the courage of the humble and the weak peasants in the face of evil, the constant danger, the beheading, not unlike John the Baptist´s, the ton of arguments of the cult and refinated prosecutors (“you´re just an ignorant”), so you almost forget that they´re the ones who resort to kill, lies and torture, Kichijiro coming back again and again and again (not unlike myself), and being fogiven each time by God! That was amazing. There was young Guarupe´s sacrifice as a sepherd trying to protect his sheeps, the Jude figure in Ferreira, speaking and speaking with sad eyes about how happy and convinced he was. And then there was the scene. Our Lord´s voice spoke not in silence, as it did during the film, but directly, and I´m pretty sure I can´t reconcile what it said with my faith. As I´m weak, I think I may break and and apostate as Kichijiro if I were in the same situation (I hope not, I hope I would resist and die as Garupe and Mokichi and be embraced afterwards by Christ), but I would never think it was my Lord´s will like Rodrigues and Ferreira seem to do. I would remember Him saying “Before the cock crows you will deny me three times”, or “Don’t be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot touch your soul”. I would think that whatever good seemed to come for this sin (apparent good, more apparent here because it´s all a blackmail maneouvre by the prosecutors which could be repeated anytime they wish), God will always be first, as He is the one who can save everyone, not me.

    As I said, I have not read Endo´s novel, but I think the screenwriting does not seem to suggest that the voice could be a illusion in the confused mind of Rodrigues. It´s the same which speaks later, when Rodrigues talks to God. It connects with other elements and words of the plot and of Ferreira´s discourse, that I had previously dismissed as “Devil´s arguments in Getsemani”. I can try to understand how Our Lord carries even the suffering we bring in ourselves by sinning in the moment we are sinning. I simply cannot think on Him saying “do it, sin, deny me”, whatever the reasons, whatever the circunstances: it would be pure torture, worst tan everything else. I can only imagine the suffering and confussion of the Christian peasants whose live is spared by the apostasy of their only priest. In my view, merciful love is about giving yourself to those to suffer and sarifice yourself, but firstly, to try to give them God´s love with his help. All sacrifice is valuable because it´s connected to this Sacrifice, and to deny Christ in doing it would break this connection. Therefore, I would say sinning because of love for others is an illusion which will never work and would corrupt not only my love for God, but my love for others.

    From then on, I watched the movie with different eyes. Sure, it´s a bit of hope to know that neither he or Ferreira could forget God or stop believing even when constantly denying Him in public and private, that even in the end one of them retained the small Crucifix and the other would sometimes pretend not to see a hidden Christian symbol when monitoring the harbour, but it´s sad too: what a shameful and tasteless life, breaking all their Jesuit votes to God, lying constantly about their most intimate truth, cooperating with the prosecutors of Christianity, maybe helping to disencourage some fellow Christians… It felt to me like when reading Jude´s desperation, rejecting the money and hanging himself. So, althought it´s a great, deep and interesting film and I loved the characters, I was sort of a bitter ending for me, and I was not very happy when leaving the cinema. I think that to find hope in the story of an apostate one should look to the repenting Kichijiro, not to Ferreira and Rodrigues.

    As I said, the dilemma presented made me remember others presented by Graham Greene and Gertrud Von Le Fort in their novels. The one I can remember (more or less) is the second one. Le Fort told the case of Catholic women who believe in God, but decide to live as if she were in sin, away from God´s grace, and marry a man who was in the road to damnation due to loving him deeply, deciding (again, more or less) to risk eternal damnation for his sake. Still a believer, she walks away from Grace so to bring that Grace to him. Sort of. She (spoilers) ultimately saves him, but is deeply hurt in the process, and he, now converted, is the one who heals him… The novel explores theology of Christian marriage and the rise of ideology just before World War One, and it´s interesting. It struck me as a more dramatic case (here is not death or suffering which is at stake, but the eternal salvation of a loved one), but I still think that it would be very wrong to do such a thing: I am not God, I can´t control the story of any human being, I don´t know what will be best in the end, and I think that my only path is to be obedient and faithful in any way I can and hope that He will do the rest. I prefer The Song at the Scaffold, which is also about martyredom and has parallels to the film but has a different conclusion.

    Thank you for the review! It´s nice to read you again.

    Leave a Reply
    • TWWK
      20 January 2017 at 10:21 pm

      Thanks for the excellent response! I won’t say much except to tell you that I agree with pretty much all your points, including comparisons to Greene and O’Connor. As for that defining moment in the film in which Jesus speaks, I agree that Scorsese seems to imply that it’s actually Jesus, while leaving some room for interpretation; it makes sense to me, because I feel that’s what Scorsese himself believes about Christ and wants to be true. Endo is a little more open-ended when he presents the same, not least of all because Rodrigues is a much more unreliable narrator in the novel. He’s more obviously flawed, more a man of his time rather than what I felt was a modern characterization of the missionary in the film. I agree with you, too, about the deviation here in regards to what God would want of us in this situation, which is why I hope that those of somewhat weaker or less knowledgeable faith would be accompanied by stronger Christians in watching this film so that they can discuss these very important questions and be guided toward more proper answers, while still pulling the truth that is in abundance in the film amidst the more questionable content.

      Leave a Reply
  • Luminas
    20 January 2017 at 12:25 pm

    There is, then, the question: Does it matter more to be doctrinally sound and thereby not really address or answer the questions the Bible itself does not answer? Or does it matter more to try to show that the Christian God does understand, more than we know, especially it seems like he doesn’t?

    I wrestle constantly with the idea that a just God would put people into impossible moral conundrums (Why does a just God create those with homosexual inclinations when homosexuality is a sin? Why would a just God create a scenario that nearly forces empathy (Not just sympathy) for the Devil? Why would a just God allow true born-that-way sociopaths to exist and then expect them to adhere to what they cannot really comprehend? Why does a just God allow children with the more horrific, painful chromosomal birth defects to be born that way instead of normally?) and expect them to turn to Him for answers He does not give.

    Then again, so does everyone.

    Leave a Reply
    • TWWK
      20 January 2017 at 10:27 pm

      It’s good to read your writing again! 🙂

      Those two questions you give at the beginning of your response – these are among the most important ones that Silence forces upon us. And they are of utmost importance.

      I think the film is so important, in part, because the answer IS in the silence. The justice of God, in the silence. The mercy of God, in the silence. The horrid condition of the world, of humanity, in the silence. And I believe the Bible does point us toward the answer to all the questions you gave, sometimes specifically in more didactic methods, and sometimes through careful analysis that kind of says “yes” to both of your original questions, as doctrine demonstrates how amazing God is, and his understand of what we most suffer through all the more.

      Leave a Reply
      • Luminas
        25 January 2017 at 3:42 pm

        I think that I’ve always been mystified (Due to personal situations) by a God that would make people struggle over selfless love and powerful empathy rather than pornography, rebuked generosity rather than greed, justice rather than vengeance. He does it all the time, to the people whose square edges can never fit into round holes. And I want to believe He understands, and He is listening, and He died to save His outcasts, too. (That line from Hunchback: (“But I really wonder, weren’t You once an outcast too…?” )

        And this bit may not make sense, but I’m leaving it here anyway: Because maybe that means there’s a place for “both of us,” not just me. And we can shed our pride and self-loathing and ignorance like a snake’s skin, and the world will have room for the people who look more like villains than protagonists. The clever, the intellectual, the slightly effeminate, cautious and political. Who maybe have never felt like God loved them as much as his more innocent children.

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  • Japesland
    21 January 2017 at 9:48 am

    Silence just came out in Japan today so I finally had the chance to see it!

    As far as I’m concerned, it’s as faithful an adaptation as I could have asked for, and it’s intention for a slightly more mainstream audience I think suited the more direct “answer” of Jesus toward the end of the film. I think the original unclarity of the book wouldn’t translate well into film.

    Having already taken the time to wrestle with the issues of the story when I read the book, I didn’t have to spend time digesting the events and actions of the characters this time around, and I think the actions of the characters were more relatable to me as a result.

    Great movie and it moved me and strengthened my faith just as the book did, though it’s almost as hard recommend as the book (even though I seem to agree with the actions of the characters more than most Christians I’ve seen/heard voice their opinions on it).

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